Public hospitals struggling to cope with rush triggered by winter's chill

Daily visits to emergency wards top 6,000, waiting times stretch up to eight hours and wards overflow from patient admissions

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 December, 2013, 5:04am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 December, 2013, 5:04am

Hong Kong's already creaking public hospitals are reeling as winter bites in the run-up to Christmas and people flood emergency units and wards.

Daily visits to all emergency units jumped from an average of 5,800 to above 6,000 this week as the temperature dropped, with some patients having to wait eight hours before receiving treatment.

Some wards are so overcrowded that they have an occupancy rate of 120 per cent - meaning that patients are sleeping on temporary beds in corridors.

The Hospital Authority's acting director of cluster services said this winter would pose a major challenge to the public health care service because the surge in demand had coincided with the looming threat of an outbreak of H7N9 bird flu.

"Citizens are advised to visit private clinics or general clinics instead of the public's accident and emergency units for non-urgent cases, as it is expected that there will be long queues for services," Dr Lee Koon-hung said.

"The situation is expected to get worse as the peak season of influenza usually falls in the winter between January and March, during which people face an increased risk of flu complications under prolonged cold spells, especially elderly people and those with long-term illnesses."

In high-demand hospitals such as Queen Elizabeth in Jordan, emergency unit patients had to wait an average of three to four hours. Though the unit would still treat life-threatening patients immediately, less urgent cases had to wait as long as eight hours under a prioritising scheme, deputy hospital chief executive Dr Ho Hui-fai said.

The medical wards had an occupancy rate of 120 per cent, and wards for orthopaedic, surgical and brain surgery patients are above 100 per cent occupancy.

In response, the authority has opened 287 general beds and prepared 300 extra temporary beds at public hospitals.

Hospitals will change their service priorities to meet urgent needs. That means reducing elective and non-urgent surgery, skipping unnecessary admissions, and patients spending less time in hospital. Life-threatening surgery and cancer treatment would not be affected, Ho said.

Dr Loletta So Kit-ying, consultant at Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital, said frontline staff were under huge pressure during this period and that many of them were working additional shifts under an extra allowance scheme.

She said the workload for doctors had increased by 20 per cent this winter compared with the peak season two years ago - some of the extra work was to prepare for a possible outbreak of H7N9.

Ho added that overall demand for public health care services was increasing by 10 per cent a year due to the ageing population.

Making matters worse is the fact public hospitals are short of 300 doctors thanks to a chronic manpower shortage that will not begin to ease until after 2015, when more trainee doctors graduate.